Made of Moon Dust: Lithoz 3D Printers Produce Tools for a Lunar Station
Is this science fiction? Not at all! The construction of homes on the moon is much more than a bold vision—thanks in no small part to the international Artemis program, whose goal is to put humans back on Earth’s satellite. For a project of the European Space Agency (ESA), Lithoz GmbH in Vienna, a specialist for technical ceramics in additive manufacturing, is researching how tools and construction materials made of moon dust can be fabricated on site using 3D printing. The material is tested with ZwickRoell testing machines.
“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.” (From: Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne)
A house by the ocean—or in the mountains: Who doesn’t dream of it? But a house on the moon? With a view of the earth, into space and a view of the Milky Way? What may sound like scenes from science fiction movies or novels, researchers and scientists along with international space agencies, have been working on for quite some time, as is currently the case with the Artemis moon mission. The vision: whether in the short term or long term, to build a space base on the moon. The objective: from there, even further into space and onward to Mars to continue exploring our solar system and possibly even track down and explore new unknown galaxies...
In order to take a big step closer to this goal, experts believe that the construction of a lunar station is necessary and indispensable in the long term. This outpost, which already exists in numerous science fiction films, could significantly shorten the long and extremely expensive transport route from Earth to the Moon.
ISRU principle: in situ resource utilization
The solution is: lunar regolith, meaning moon dust. This is because there is plenty of it on Earth’s satellite and, according to the ISRU principle (in situ resource utilization), it could be used locally as a raw material to produce building materials, tools and even furniture needed for the lunar base. The purpose of ISRU in space exploration is to collect available resources/raw materials, process them and use them to replace materials that would otherwise have to be imported from Earth.
According to plans also being worked on by the European Space Agency (ESA), a complete moon station is to be created in this way–using 3D printing. In basic terms, all that would be needed is to put 3D printers on the moon to print the necessary materials and tools. For this purpose, vehicles would collect the moon dust and by adding a few other substances, it should become possible to print with it. An additional advantage: according to expert estimates, the raw materials required for the base material to enable 3D printing account for only one percent, which would also be advantageous in terms of cost reduction.
Real moon dust is not usable – tests with synthetic material
In their Moon Dust project, Lithoz GmbH in Vienna is addressing this particular issue, and since their founding in 2011 have become a specialist and global market leader in the field of additive manufacturing systems for advanced ceramics. Materials engineers and materials testers for Lithoz GmbH, which was founded by the two graduates of the Vienna University of Technology (TU) and current executives Johannes Benedikt and Johannes Homa, are working on a process to produce tools and wear parts from synthesized moon dust using a 3D printer, and are additionally testing the properties of these materials.
Although there are about 400 kilograms of lunar rock on Earth from previous lunar missions, it is now unusable for today's experimental purposes due their exposure to air and moisture, as it has lots its chemical reactivity.
Through terrestrial material that is synthesized, scientists produce so-called lunar regolith simulants that have similar chemical, mechanical, and engineering properties to real lunar regolith. As part of the LUPIN study with the European Space Agency (ESA), Lithoz GmbH developed a method to process regolith with its lithography-based printing technology. In LCM 3D printing, a ceramic slurry containing a photoreactive organic binder is exposed to blue light with pixel precision layer by layer, hardening it in the appropriate places to produce green-state ceramic parts of flawless mechanical strength for further processing.
Homa: “Our leading LCM technology—if you value the quality of the results—is the gold standard in ceramic LCM 3D printing.”
The stability of moon dust is tested using compression and 3-point flexure tests
And if components were to be produced on the moon in the future by Lithoz 3D printing, testing machine manufacturer ZwickRoell would also share in the project and its possible success. The reason: in terms of machine development, materials testing and process development—in other words, getting the company to where it is today—the two founders Benedikt and Homa worked with ZwickRoell testing machines back in their days as students at the Vienna University of Technology. “We took our first steps in 3D printing at the university. We therefore know and appreciate the reliability and precision of ZwickRoell testing machines,” said Johannes Benedikt, CTO at Lithoz GmbH.
Last but not least, in November, under contract of Lithoz GmbH, materials engineers at ZwickRoell in Ulm tested the moon dust specimens previously tested in Vienna to determine if they are suitable for use as base material for tool or building material in space—since quickly stopping by the store to buy a replacement in case something breaks on the moon is not really an option.
“A follow-up test in such cases is always very useful and helps us to continuously improve the process,” explained CEO Homa. The two-day tests included compression and 3-point flexure tests. “For us, the material tests with regolith presented a novelty, however, we were able to perform them very well according to the special customer requirements,” concluded Tobias Ebner, lead ZwickRoell materials engineer for specimen tests for the Moon Dust project. And he adds: “The evaluation of the test results, whether and to what extent the material is suitable for the construction of a moon station, or whether it has to be adapted, is now up to our client.”
Currently, the results and findings of the two-day quality tests performed by Lithoz GmbH are being analyzed, discussed with the European
Space Agency (ESA) and will then be published.
“We are well known in the scientific community”
In their meteoric rise in the field of ceramic 3D printing, Lithoz GmbH is distinguished by a special triad, which may soon be heard—or more precisely, seen—in space: from basic and applied research to the development of ready-to-use and marketable products for industrial use, Lithoz GmbH offers comprehensive know-how in 3D printing with tailor-made solutions. This is one of the reasons why ESA (European Space Agency) is one of the partners and cooperates closely with the Austrian company. In addition, due to the university background of the two executives, they maintain great contact with the scientific community and the company is well known, indicated Johannes Homa, CEO. Despite the entrepreneurial success: Lithoz GmbH does not work completely detached, and despite their growth, continues to focus on keeping their feet on the ground: the company employs more than 135 people, produces and develops mainly at their headquarters in Vienna, and relies on close cooperation with experts from the fields of research, science and industry.
Pushing the boundaries of what is possible, advancing into new spheres
According to Lithoz CEO Homa, there are still a few solar orbits of the Earth, before the construction of a space station on the moon begins. And he emphasizes that the path to the moon will not be an easy one. But it is planned and paved. It is therefore, simply a matter of time, before a base station is built on the moon. Lithoz GmbH is well on their way to fulfill their mission to provide the highest quality ceramic printing and continuously push the boundaries of ceramic development. “We want to contribute to people venturing into unknown galaxies and exploring new worlds,” say the ceramic specialists, explaining the company’s aspirations.
“Construction of a moon station will be a major step for space travel and a milestone for mankind. We at Lithoz GmbH are ready to be part of this exciting journey and development.” And Benedikt adds: “Anyone who flies to the moon, will not get past us. As our reliable partner, ZwickRoell provided us with a very important data base, which gave us key insights for this mission. With help from ZwickRoell, we have made a significant stride forward. We would like to—in the truest sense of the word—reach for the stars and make the conceivable possible and implement it in space using our expertise.”